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Gwinnett County’s MARTA referendum: what you should know

Gwinnett County commissioners have approved a contract for joining MARTA, as well as a referendum for next March allowing residents to decide on a one cent sales tax to pay for the service. The fact that this is one of the counties that rejected MARTA in the 1970s says a lot about the well-publicized demographic changes in the county and the regional shift in opinions about transit.

We usually stick to City of Atlanta issues at ThreadATL. But there’s potential here for fewer car trips — and generally improved access — for folks traveling between Gwinnett County and intown Atlanta.  For urbanists who want to see reliance on cars reduced, that’s good news.

MARTA bus stop. Does this look like a “tax-eating boondoggle” to you?

We’re hopeful about the possibility that MARTA could expand next year. But it’s worth noting a few important details about the referendum and the politics at play. Even amid the changes in Gwinnett, this move towards MARTA is intertwined with the anti-transit culture of the past.

Things to know about the Gwinnett MARTA referendum

  • All 5 Gwinnett commissioners are Republicans. This vote to allow the referendum passed with a 4-1 vote.
  • The driving forces for MARTA in the county are Charlotte Nash, Lynette Howard, and Jace Brooks (3 of the 4 “yes” votes). All three seem to genuinely want to do something about transit.
  • That said, all three are Republicans and we’ve heard from insiders that there has been pressure from state GOP leadership to keep MARTA *off* the Nov 6 ballot for fear that it would help drive Democratic/pro-Abrams turnout in Gwinnett.
  • The 4th surprise “yes” vote was from John Heard, who just days ago called MARTA a “tax-eating boondoggle” in an AJC piece and was strongly opposed to a November referendum. Some suspect he switched to “yes” not because of an epiphany on MARTA’s merits, but because he wants the referendum to fail. Many believe that a referendum held in March has a chance of failure due to low expected turnout.
  • The 5th commissioner, Tommy Hunter (who famously called John Lewis “a racist pig“), has been understood by many as a solid “no” vote all along.
  • This standalone referendum in March could cost over $500,000. That’s about the cost of a new bus, or monthly MARTA passes for over 400 people for a year. County commissioners’ commitment to careful spending has apparently lapsed.

We can and should hope for the best when it comes to MARTA expansion in Gwinnett. But we also ought to understand what we’re dealing with on the county-leadership level, and also how the issue is being influenced at the state-party level.

Gwinnett residents can petition the county for a November referendum.

Some advocates have put together a petition for Gwinnett residents who want to get the date of the referendum changed to November. From the petition’s intro: “Our best chance at bringing MARTA to Gwinnett is getting it on the ballot this November! Please sign this action alert message and petition to let the county commissioners know we deserve a vote this November.”